Saturday, May 31, 2014

1995 Reflections: Macon Braves

Welcome to the third part of a look back at the "Other" 1995 teams for the Braves franchise, the minor league clubs that would continue to produce players that would contribute to the Streak. Two weeks ago, we looked at the Danville Braves and last week, we touched base with the Emeralds in Eugene. Up this week is the Macon Braves. Atlanta began a relationship with Macon in 1991 after the town of Macon had been without organized baseball since the Pirates left four years earlier. The Braves would stay in Macon until 2002 when they moved their A ball squad to a new park in Rome, Georgia.

The 1995 squad was managed by Nelson Norman, a former middle infielder who played in 198 games in the majors, mostly when he was a 21 year-old rookie for the Rangers back in 1979. His playing days came to a close after 1989 and five years later, he got his first crack at managing with the Expos in the Gulf Coast League. The following season, Atlanta brought him in for one year with Macon. After leaving the Braves organization, Norman would coach in the Red Sox and Cardinals organization, eventually serving as a manager for the Dominican Summer League Cardinals for 2010 and 2011. Most recently, he has been the Director of Baseball Operations in the Dominican Republic for the Orioles.

Macon was led by several future major leaguers. Behind the plate, Pascual Matos was in his second season with Macon. Matos never hit very well (though he smacked 18 homers for Durham in 1997), but was a plus defender. In 1995, he hit just .185, but handled the pitching staff well. He would stick in the Braves organization until the end of 2000 and appeared in six games with the Braves in 1999, going 1 for 8 with 2 RBI. He would never make it back to the majors. After leaving the Braves' organization, Matos spent time with the Yankees, Rockies, and White Sox organization and played in the Canadian Baseball League, the Atlantic League, and the Golden Baseball League before a turn in the Italian Baseball League in 2008. He called a career after that and the well traveled backstop probably headed home.

Images courtesy of tradingcarddb.com
At first base was Ron Wright, a big power hitter from Washington. Wright, who was a 7th rounder in 1994, bashed 32 homers for Macon and OPS'd .849. He would continue to destroy baseballs, hitting 36 homers in 1996 while playing in three different cities and being part of the trade that sent Jason Schmidt to the Pirates for Denny Neagle. He was the #46th prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, but struggled to stay healthy after 1996, failing to play in at least 100 games until 2001. By that time, Wright had been waived by the Pirates and picked up by the Reds, who let him go and he landed in Tampa Bay. Wright headed to the northwest for the 2002 season and played for the Mariners organization, ultimately getting a start at DH on April 14th of that year against former Rangers starter, Kenny Rogers, whose control in 1999 is the basis of this blog's name. Wright went 0 for 3 with a strikeout and grounded into a double play before being lifted for a pinch hitter. He headed back to the minors and after a 2003 season saw him play in the Indians and Tigers organization, Wright tried his luck in independent ball for a season. After no one else called, he retired after the 2004 season, a bust of a prospect. Fortunately for the Pirates, that Schmidt kid worked out for them.

Second base was manned by Mike Eaglin, who spent seven seasons in the Braves organization. He was repeating a year at Macon after injuries limited him to just 26 games in 1994 and Eaglin OPS'd just .673. After peaking at AA with the Braves, Eaglin played briefly for the White Sox organization in 1999, but was out of professional ball after that.

While the Macon Braves had a number of everyday regulars, shortstop was a position in flux during the 1995 season. Brett Newell, a 23rd rounder in 1994, got the most starts and hit just .256/.328/.295. He also spent a month with Durham. After struggling in 1996, Newell reinvented himself as a reliever and struck out 46 with the Eugene Emeralds in 34.1 ING during the 1997 season. He was either cut or picked up in the minor league Rule 5 draft the following season and played for the Royals organization, but was significantly less productive and after 1998, he was done with baseball. Jose Delgado also got time for the Macon Braves at short. Delgado, a former second rounder for the Pirates, OPS'd just .635 in 45 games. He would hit .293 the following season for Macon, but his success was short-lived and after 1998, he was cut and tried his luck in independent ball for three years before calling it quits. Previously discussed Australians Glenn Williams and Ben Utting also got at least 20 games at short for Macon.

Big Wes Helms manned the hot corner for Macon. A tenth rounder out of North Carolina in 1994, Helms hit .275/.347/.401 for Macon in 1995 with 11 long flies. He would hit 17 the following season and reached the Baseball America Top 100 list as a result. Helms had a disappointing season in 1997 and only OPS'd .768 with Richmond in 1998 with 103 K's to 35 walks, but did make it to the bigs for Atlanta for a seven game cup of coffee that included a homer off one-time Brave Justin Speier. After an injury-shortened 1999, Helms had a fine season for Richmond in 2000, slashing .288/.325/.475 with 20 homers, a new personal best. He played six games in the majors, but got his first serious run in the majors during 2001 and 2002. He backed up the corners, getting spot starts against lefthanders, and bashed 16 homers over 185 games. However, outside of his power, Helms didn't hit all that well and the Braves shipped Helms and John Foster off to the Brewers for Ray King following the 2002 season. He hit a career-best 23 HR in 536 PA with the Brewers in 2003, his only year as a true starter in the bigs, but would eventually settle into a backup role at first and third who was often called upon to pinch hit. In fact, with the Marlins in 2006, he played in a career-high 140 games, but only managed 278 PA. He hit .311 as a pinch-hitter that season in 52 games. Over his career, Helms hit a respectable .259 as a pinch hitter with 7 pinch-hit homers. After the Marlins cut the .191-hitting Helms during mid-August 2011, the Braves inked him to a contract where he played in nine forgetful games with the Gwinnett Braves. He retired after the season

In the outfield, a pair of no-names (Brett Brewer and Gus Kennedy) flanked future superstar Andruw Jones. Brewer was a 1993 14th rounder out of Arizona who was playing in his third and final season in the Braves organization (and in professional ball). He on-based .340 and stole 15 bases, but hit just .241. Kennedy had a big year, though, slashing .253/.386/.506 with 24 homers and 20 steals. After he struggled in 1996, the Braves cut bait and he would spend the next three years trying his hand with the Cubs, Padres, and Angels organizations, but never made it to AA. After a 45 game run to finish 1999 in independent ball, his career came to a close.

Meanwhile, Jones was already ranked by Baseball America as the #21st best prospect in baseball. He would spend all of 1995 with Macon and led all Braves minor leaguers with 56 steals while slashing .277/.372/.512. He added 41 doubles and 25 homers while driving in a cool 100. Jones would head to Durham the following season, but didn't stick with them all season like he did Macon. The best prospect in baseball rifled up the ladder, even joining the big league club for the playoff push and famously homered in his first two at-bats in the World Series. After a year spent learning on the job, Jones became the everyday CF in 1998 and manned that position for the Braves until 2006, hitting 368 homers and winning a Gold Glove every season, though toward the end, it was more awarding him based on reputation. His post-Atlanta career has been rocky. He crashed and burned in one season with the Dodgers, and while he was productive in limited opportunities for the Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees, he was no longer an everyday player. Over the last two seasons, he has played with Rakuten in Japan, hitting 39 homers in 191 games while largely playing DH and first base.

So, Moss decided...I want to
look like a hitter?
Macon was led on the mound by Derrin Ebert and Damian Moss as an impressive 1-2, though their only complete game shutout came from Anthony Briggs. Ebert, an 18th rounder the previous year out of California, posted a 3.31 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, but never came close to those numbers again. He broke camp with the Braves in 1999 for a five game run and picked up a save in his debut against the Phillies, though it was a three-inning save as the Braves routed the Phils 11-3. He finished the season with a 5.63 ERA in 8 innings with the Braves, who ultimately released him following the 2000 season. He would go to play with seven teams in five years, including the Brewers twice, though his 2004 season was wiped out because of injury. However, he never made it back to the bigs.  Moss, on the other hand, posted a 3.56 ERA and 1.37 WHIP with the Macon Braves and the Australian native would make it to the majors in 2001, where he became a part of the rotation under Tom Glavine's wing in 2002 when he started 29 games for the Braves and posted a 3.42 ERA while finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. However, he walked 89 and after the season, the Braves made him expendable, trading him to the Giants in return for Russ Ortiz. By the 2003 deadline, the Giants had seen enough and sent him packing to the Orioles, who released him. He pitched eight innings for the 2004 Rays, but headed to the minors, where his career would languish. Stops in Cincinnati, Seattle, Colorado, and even back in Atlanta did little to get him back to the majors. He even pitched for the Macon Music in 2007, the independent ballclub that replaced the Braves. After 2010, Moss called it quits and currently runs a baseball/softball clinic in Georgia. Briggs threw his only complete game shutout in 1995 and would stick with the Braves organization until 1998. After a year with Colorado, his hope of getting to the majors was finished.

Those three were joined by other future major leaguers for a pitching staff that was surprisingly pretty bad. John Rocker started 16 games with Macon to go with his 12 starts in Eugene. Micah Bowie started five games in Macon before heading to Durham where he started 23.

However, Kevin Millwood spent the entire year with Macon. In 29 games with Macon, Millwood started 12. It may be forgotten, but Millwood was not a big prospect. The imposing Tar Heel was repeating Macon after appearing in 12 games with them the previous season and in 1995, he posted a 4.63 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. He did K 89 in 103 innings. Millwood started to find it from there, settling into a starter role in 1996 and climbing the ladder from AA to the bigs in 1997. By 1998, he was entrenched in Atlanta and was stellar for the Braves in 1999, his only All-Star season. His numbers were good, though never elite, and he was expected to anchor the rotation in 2003. That was before Greg Maddux famously accepted arbitration before the season, forcing the Braves to cut salary and send Millwood packing, and getting only Johnny Estrada in return from the division rival Phillies. He would throw a no-hitter the following season, but after two years in Philadelphia, he headed to Cleveland in 2005. After his only ERA title with the Indians, Millwood signed a long-term deal with the Rangers, but didn't pitch well in Arlington. He finished up his career with single season campaigns with the Orioles, Rockies, and Mariners. On June 8th of 2012, he started a combined no-hitter with six scoreless against the Dodgers before exiting with injury. Five pitchers would pitch the remaining three innings to complete the no-hitter.

Ken Raines, who paced the Danville Braves with 6 saves, led the Macon Braves with 8. Eric Olszewski struck out 103  in 81.1 ING and saved five games, but struggled with control and injuries and was in independent ball by 1999 and out of baseball after 2000.

Macon would finish 71-70 on the season, despite the league's best offense (5.24 R/G, almost a run higher than the league average). This was mostly due to a pitching staff that was substandard. Macon walked 58 more batters than the next team and surrendered the second most homers to Hickory while uncorking the most wild pitches in the league. They had a few good pitchers mixed in, but too many were minor league filler and would be out of baseball by 2000. Still, for fans of Macon in 1995, the idea of watching Andruw patrol center field nightly had to be a treat.

Shae Simmons Gets the Call

There was little doubt that 23 year-old reliever Shae Simmons was headed up the ladder to an eventual appearance in Atlanta, but it was still surprising it happened so fast. The news struck twitter around midnight on Friday night and those awake were immediately excited about the pending arrival of Simmons, who will skip Gwinnett to join the Braves for the second-of-three with the Marlins Saturday afternoon.

Simmons was a 22nd rounder out of little Southeast Missouri State in the 2012 draft and the right-hander wasn't drafted because of his stats, but because the scouts were intrigued enough to give Simmons a shot. The Missouri native, who majored in criminal justice while pitching for the Redhawks, was miscast as a starter and saw his stock rise while playing summer ball and appearing as a reliever when he could delivery max effort and a fastball that, at the time, comfortably sat at 96 mph.

It would soon add a couple of digits as Simmons joined the Braves organization after the 2012 draft and dealt with some control issues while striking out 36 in 24.2 ING in rookie ball. With the Braves cleaning up his delivery and his continued maturity, Simmons would break out last season, starting with Rome and ending with Mississippi with no natural stop in Lynchburg.  In 50 games, Simmons posted a brilliant 0.99 WHIP, 13.8 K/9, and improved 3.7 BB/9. He continued that work in 20 games this season with Mississippi as he struck out 30 in 23 innings compared to six walks. In 101 innings in the minors, Simmons has K'd 148 and never given up a homerun.

In addition to that fastball that includes great natural sink, Simmons mixes in a slider that is growing more consistent. Occasionally, he'll mix in a changeup that, when mixed with his fastball, leaves batters flailing over the plate. The diminutive righty has received comparisons to Craig Kimbrel, which is about as high of a compliment as a reliever can receive.

In related news, for the second time this season, Ian Thomas is headed back to the minors. I like Thomas and believe he can be an effective pitcher at this level. However, he needs a breaking pitch and the slider isn't there just yet.

As of right now (and I'm writing this late into the night), the Braves have yet to make a corresponding 40-man roster move, though there are options. As discussed in a previous post, the Braves could DFA Jordan Schafer from the roster and call up one of the outfielders already on the 40-man roster. They could also DFA a struggling pitcher who is taking up room on the 40 man-roster. Braves lefty Carlos Perez has not pitched in a month and a half and could be ripe for a trip to the 60-day DL.

Either way, the Braves have proven over the last few days that they are not going to sit back idly while waiting for some ridiculous Super 2 deadline to pass. The time to compete is now and Tommy La Stella and Simmons make the Braves better than Tyler Pastornicky and Thomas.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cheering on the Home Team

The crazy thing about following a minor league team is that players enter your memory and take up residence, always at the ready to be triggered by reading about a player who finally made it to the majors. Such was the case last night when I was reading MLBTradeRumors.com and saw that the Dodgers had called up Jamie Romak. This name might not attract too much attention from Braves fans. He barely played in the Atlanta Brave organization. However, before the Lynchburg Hillcats fans were entertained by Braves prospects such as Andrelton Simmons, Evan Gattis, and Lucas Sims, they got to know prospects that eventually helped the Pirates get to the playoffs last year. From 1995 to 2009, Lynchburg was an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates and current Pirates such as Jordy Mercer, Pedro Alvarez, and Josh Harrison made stops there. As did Romak for parts of three seasons between 2007 until the Pirates final year in Lynchburg, 2009.

However, Romak was originally a Brave and was drafted in 2003 in the 4th round out of Canada.  Romak was Atlanta's sixth selection that year, but they would receive little more than trade bait from the six that were selected before Romak, including both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Matt Harrison. In fact, the only player from the 2003 draft that eventually became a productive player for the Braves was 30th rounder, Jonny Venters.

After he was drafted, Romak struggled in the Gulf Coast League during 19 games, hitting just .176 but giving us a glimpse into his on-base abilities by walking nine times. He headed to Danville and would struggle there as well, hitting .190 with 5 HR as an 18 year-old in 2004. The age gave the Braves reason to believe better things were coming and in 2005, they started to see Romak come into his own, despite an injury-shorten campaign with Danville. He slashed .274/.368/.540 with 7 HR in 34 G. A promotion to full-season ball followed and he played 108 games during 2006 with Rome, belting 16 HR and on-basing .369 as a 20 year-old.

Romak was developing into a mini version of the Three True Outcomes guy. He stuck out plenty (102 times in 348 AB during 2006), but he also walked a healthy amount and had pop. After originally being drafted as a third baseman, Romak had found a home in right field and while not a big prospect, he was a guy with a solid base to grow from.

He would have to do so elsewhere as after the 2006 season, the Braves sent Romak and Adam LaRoche to the Pirates in exchange for lefty Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge. The deal was a reasonable exchange. The Braves weren't willing to pay LaRoche's increasing salary as a result of arbitration, Gonzalez helped address a significant weakness for the 2006 Braves, and Lillibridge was a solid prospect capable of playing short or possibly moving to center field. The deal ultimately never worked out as LaRoche's replacements were substandard (and forced ugly trades for Mark Teixeira and eventually LaRoche himself) and Lillibridge maxed out as a utility player. Not to mention, Gonzalez never stayed healthy for long.

Romak became the lost prospect in the deal. He joined Hickory in the Pirates organization and OPS'd .944 over the first month, showing the Pirates he was ready for the Carolina League. He joined a bad, bad Hillcats squad later that year. Future Brave farmhands like Jairo Asencio, Todd Redmond, and Steven Lerud didn't help the Hillcats from a tough campaign where they finished nearly 30 games under .500. Nevertheless, Romak, who missed action both with nagging injuries and the first month in Hickory, hit .252/.380/.483 and led the team with 15 HR.

Courtesy: milb.com
The Canadian outfielder looked ready for AA and joined Altoona the next year. He struggled there, hitting just .208 and eventually getting himself demoted back to Lynchburg where he caught fire. While the 'Cats were still bad, despite the play of future big leaguers Alex Presley and Brad Lincoln, Romak bashed 18 homers and slashed .279/.360/.552. With the 7 homers he managed in Altoona, Romak finished with 25 HR, still a career high. Yes, he failed in AA, but he still had a positive year.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off in 2009 for Romak. he again struggled in Altoona, hitting an abysmal .175 with no power. He finished the year in Lynchburg and never got going for the eventual Carolina League Champs. Romak, who came to the plate to "Shipping Up to Boston" by Dropkick Murphys during his time in Lynchburg, would be sent packing after 2009.

From there, he began a journey that started in the Kansas City organization. He again destroyed the Carolina League, this time with Wilmington, and finally conquered AA pitching, hitting .278/.389/.459 in 45 games with Northwest Arkansas. He was back with the Naturals in 2011 and he OPS .803 in 125 games, even pitching twice with two scoreless innings where he faced the minimum with a strikeout against future big leaguer Jimmy Paredes to his credit. Romak would finally debut in AAA during 2012, playing first base for Omaha for the first month of action where he posted a .422 OPS. The Royals let him go to the Cardinals organization and despite hitting .277 in 31 games with Memphis, Romak was demoted back to AA and OPS'd .809 with Springfield for the remainder of 2012.

Needing to conquer AAA, Romak returned to the Cardinals organization and would spend all of 2013 with Memphis playing both corner infield positions and both corner outfield slots while slashing .242./.322/.461 with 22 homers. It was hardly a great season, especially in the notorious hitter's league known as the Pacific Coast League, but at 28, he entered the offseason a graduate of a full season at AAA and a minor league free agent. The Dodgers came calling and Romak went to spring training with nearly no chance to make a crowded roster. After camp, he went to Albuquerque and slashed .272/.354/.578 with 13 HR while playing a good deal of third base, a position he really shouldn't be at. All but three of his homers came in May.

He did all he could to deserve a callup and got one, albeit it took an injury to get his shot. He would make his debut Wednesday evening in the bottom of the seventh with the Dodgers down 3-2. Hitting for Clayton Kershaw, Romak was justifiably pumped and went after the first pitch, grounding out to second to end the inning. He would not remain in the game. He did not play Thursday night as the Dodgers opened a four-game set against the visiting Pirates, the team that traded for Romak many years before.

My father used to be an usher in Lynchburg so ever since I was an infant, I have been around City Stadium and seen many games in that park. I've seen the Mets and Red Sox go, the Pirates leave after a title, the Reds briefly spend a season in Lynchburg, and most recently...the Braves. And several players have entered my memory for one reason or another. I recall Phil Plantier taking a liner right off the nose playing third base for the Lynchburg Red Sox. More recently, I remember vividly Joey Terdoslavich beating a throw to second on an RBI single where he was advancing on the throw and being called out. It was an awful call and Joey T slammed his helmet down, earning an ejection and a standing ovation. Players like Romak stick in my head because you spend so long rooting for him as a 'Cat. I am so happy he has made it to the majors and although his chances of sticking seem small, I am hoping he defies the odds. At least, against everyone but the Braves.

They've Had Enough Time

(Stats Accurate Entering Thursday Night...)

The Braves need offensive production. Over the last 30 days, only the Twins (85 RS) and the injury-ravaged Reds (82 RS) have scored fewer runs than the Braves at 86. Most concerning is the sudden lack of power. Atlanta's bread-and-butter of walks and homers was already lacking in the former this season, but over the last 30 days, they have only sent 22 balls to the bleachers and their .129 ISO is good for 19th in the majors. It's hard to score runs when over 70% of your plate appearances end in outs, though. The ugly fact is that the Braves, both recently and over this season, have made an abundance of outs. Only three teams are worse than the Braves at turning trips to the plate into non-outs. Right now, as a team, the Braves are essentially Jeff Francoeur. That's not a particularly lovely idea.

I fully respect the idea that you give your team roughly 60 days to figure it out. Even when I play in Out of the Park, I typically won't mess with my roster until June. With the Braves failing to run away with the East despite the struggles of the Nationals, the Braves are being forced to make moves and it looks like they are on board with the idea. On Wednesday, they demoted Tyler Pastornicky to the minors in favor of Tommy La Stella, who started his first game later that night. Pastornicky is a fine 25th guy on a team with no clearly defined holes who can use his flexibility, speed, and decent bat to help out a team. On a team with one of the worst offenses in baseball, Pastornicky was a bad use of a spot. Though I am not sure just how good La Stella will be at this level, he's worth the roster spot as Braves 2B's are slashing .172/.257/.256.

But is La Stella enough? And what more can the Braves do?

Well, the big problem with Atlanta is that they lack much flexibility here. The only position that lacks someone signed beyond this year is catcher, where Evan Gattis is second on the team with 13 homers despite a .294 OBP. However, what was supposed to be a strength (the bench) has been a failure this season and can be tweaked. Here are the slash lines of the bench with the exception of the already shipped out Pastornicky.

Ramiro Pena, 79 PA, .183/.256/.310, 3 2B, 2 HR, 7 BB, 20 K
Gerald Laird, 67 PA, .217/.299/.267, 3 2B, 7 BB, 16 K
Ryan Doumit, 57 PA, .214/.228/.304, 2 2B, 1 HR, 1 BB, 15 K
Jordan Schafer, 34 PA, .103/.188/.172, 2 2B, 3 SB, 3 BB, 7 K

Looking at baseball-reference's page, for Schafer, there is something I rarely see for an offensive player. A -0 adjusted OPS. That's awful.

However, there aren't easy answers here. Pena is the only Brave on the team now capable of playing shortstop if Andrelton Simmons misses a game, as he did on Wednesday. Laird is the primary backup catcher as it seems Fredi Gonzalez has seen enough of Doumit behind the plate. And Doumit has been more productive of late and gives the bench some element of power.

But there is Schafer and the Braves do have a few options they could look at, both of which are already on the 40-man roster. Todd Cunningham is hitting .296/.341/.388 with Gwinnett. While not the base stealer Schafer is, Cunningham provides another switch-hit bat, is plenty quick in his own right, and a career .278/.349/.364 line. He's a capable defender in center, though not a world-beater, and would likely play the position better at this level than Schafer. Old Brave stand-by and notorious bat-licker Jose Constanza is around, though the 30 year-old has been hurt this season. With nearly 300 games at Gwinnett since 2011, including 100 games in Atlanta, the Braves know what they have with Constanza. He's powerless, doesn't walk, and is dependent on making contact. The Braves have a third option, utility guy Joey Terdoslavich. While Terdo has not hit for much power this season and has slashed .261/.337/.733, he posted a .926 OPS with Gwinnett last year while making his way to the majors.

Any of those three, especially the younger options, could replace Schafer. The former prospect is playing on borrowed time after slashing .309/.397/.463 through the first three months last year. He would spend some time hurt, but also batted just .176/.252/.213 down the stretch. This season, he has struggled to find playing time behind the starters and lost some at-bats to Doumit. Still, with nearly 1200 PA in his major league career, Schafer has slashed just .224/.308/.307. What more do you need to see?

There is also the conundrum of Dan Uggla. With almost $9M remaining of his contract this year and another $13M due to him next season, the Braves naturally are not excited by the prospect of releasing Uggla and taking an entire loss. After a decent start to this season, Uggla's slash sits at .177/.254/.257 with just two homeruns. Over the last few years, Uggla hasn't had a lot of pluses to his game, but he at least walked (including a league-leading 94 in 2012) and hit homers (79 of them in his first 3 years in ATL). Now, he's doing neither and worse, Fredi has felt there was no other solution but to indefinitely bench Uggla. Since April 27th, Uggla has played in just 11 games, getting 8 starts, and left on the bench for the entirety of 15 games. He has had a few nice moments during this run, but like the line goes from Little Big League, if you get excited over a seeing eye single (or more walks in Uggla's case), don't you think something's wrong?

Theoretically, the Braves could cut Uggla and bring up one of the three previously mentioned as possible Schafer replacements. Unfortunately, there aren't many more options beyond them. Ernesto Mejia's seven homers still paces Gwinnett and he now plays overseas. Guys like Cedric Hunter, Mark Hamilton, and Sean Kazmar are long-shots to ever make an impact in the bigs. Philip Gosselin has hit .333 and could probably provide some utility infield work.

To me, if they don't believe in Uggla and are convinced his career is over, it's time to move on. Cut Schafer and Uggla, bring up Cunningham and Terdo, and see what you have. At the very worst, you open a spot or two for possible trade acquisitions or waiver pickups. At best, the two switch-hitters give the Braves a wealth of options late in games against relievers to go with Doumit and Pena, also switch-hitters.

At the end of the day, barring a really surprising trade, the Braves will live and die with this lineup. Either B.J. Upton continues to improve or the Braves production in center will suffer. Jason Heyward will either have a strong summer or he won't. Chris Johnson will get some luck back on his side or he won't. There isn't much beyond inserting La Stella into the lineup lately that the Braves can do. But, every little bit might help. Re-working the bench might not do enough, but it's something that could improve the team and the best teams maximize every roster spot.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Most Recent Big Four in Atlanta

In baseball, you just never know...

During the offseason of 2011-12, the Atlanta Braves were faced with some considerable questions. The Braves had finished 2011, their first season under Fredi Gonzalez, by collapsing down the stretch and missing the playoffs. Changes were expected to be made. Alex Gonzalez was gone at shortstop, the trio of Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, and Tommy Hanson was either hurt or coming off injury, and the bullpen faltered down the stretch as the O'Ventbrel monster was overused.  Faced with the option of trying to topple the Phillies and/or beat an improving Nationals club in 2012, the Braves knew they needed to upgrade to compete.

However, the Braves were unwilling to break up their Big Four of young pitching. Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran were young righties signed on the international market who exploded through the minor league system. Teheran was considered the better prospect, Delgado the more polished one. There was also Arodys Vizcaino, a native of the Dominican Republic, who the Braves had picked up two years previous in the Javier Vazquez trade. Finally, there was left-hander Mike Minor. He lacked the ridiculous movement of the other three, but was the surest bet of the four. The Vanderbilt product was drafted, partly, because of his high floor.

By the end of 2011, all four had made it to the majors, though Minor was the only one who established himself in the rotation at all. Minor posted a 3.39 FIP in 82.2 ING for the 2011 Braves, though his 1.49 WHIP was ugly and entirely built on too many hits given up. Delgado had started seven games and while his WHIP was much better (1.23), he was fortunate. He walked 14 compared to 18 strikeouts and his BABIP was low...probably too low. Vizcaino, the youngest of the four, was employed as a reliever and appeared in 17 games with 17 K's in 17.1 ING. Oh, sure, he also walked nine and uncorked 5 wild pitches, but the 20 year-old was already looking like a nasty option out of the pen. Teheran had filled in when called upon, starting three games and appearing in five games overall, but was overmatched (5.87 FIP, 1.48) and barring a ridiculous spring, he was ticketed for a return trip to Gwinnett.

The Braves could have easily packaged one or more of these pitchers in a deal and entered the trade market where teams pay well in talent for young, projectionable starting pitchers. With that kind of alluring trade bait, the Braves likely received many calls during the winter as teams asked how available Minor was or maybe who the Braves were more willing to part with, Teheran or Delgado? Frank Wren held tough, refusing to trade any of the four. On the contrary, he made it easier for them to make an impact by paying Derek Lowe $10M to play for the Indians. At the end of spring training in 2012, the Braves did send a pitcher packing, but it was J.J. Hoover, part of a deep second-tier that produced other trade ammunition like Brett Oberholtzer.

However, it became clear the Braves couldn't sit on the four indefinitely and it was unlikely all four would be productive Braves so decisions had to make. But as much as they shined in 2011, the four suffered setbacks in 2012. Vizcaino hurt himself in spring and would miss 2012. Delgado made 17 starts that were much uglier than his 2011 run, though his FIP liked him more. He also struggled in the minors with a 1.53 WHIP. Teheran struggled in AAA as the Braves tweaked his delivery. The only saving grace, and it took a marvelous second half to get to it, was Minor. After a 5.97 ERA in the first half of 2012 with a 1.42 WHIP, Minor was on fire in the second half, posting a 2.16 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP while helping to lead the Braves, with Kris Medlen's ridiculous final two month run, to the postseason.

But before they got there, the Braves decided who was the keepers and who they could afford to send packing. Vizcaino was up first, packaged with another minor league reliever to the Cubs for Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm, and financial assistance. The Braves seemed convinced that Vizcaino, while he may have the best stuff of the four, was the least likely to stay healthy and subsequently, the most likely to max out as a reliever. It was the kind of decision that can haunt a GM, even if both Johnson and Maholm were productive major league players. Making a deadline deal that surrenders a great arm can kill your legacy. Just as the Tigers and their lost opportunity with John Smoltz.

But before that deal actually happened, there was the deal that didn't happen, also with the Cubs. A week before the deadline, the Braves were ready to part with Delgado to acquire Ryan Dempster. A pending free agent, Dempster chose to invoke his no-trade clause. The Braves were amazed as the Cubs were spiraling into yet another losing season and Dempster, who had one awful postseason start on his resume, seemed content to spend the year enjoying the loses. He ultimately wasn't and headed to Texas instead on the same day the Braves acquired Maholm and Johnson and sucked it up for the Rangers down the stretch.

Still, the writing was on the wall for Delgado. The Braves were willing to trade him, but not Teheran and definitely not Minor. After the season, the Braves used Delgado as a key figure in the blockbuster trade that brought Justin Upton and Chris Johnson to the Braves. This time, the Braves benefitted after Upton used his no-trade clause to block a different trade to the Mariners.

Since the decision to keep half of the big four prospects, the Braves have seen Teheran flourish into the ace they believed he could be. Meanwhile, Minor is steady and productive, a perfect compliment to the ability and stuff Teheran possesses. At the same time, the Braves have seen the two they have surrendered fail to establish themselves. In Vizcaino's case, it has been injuries holding him back. After his second Tommy John surgery in March of 2012, Vizcaino missed all of 2013 after needing a follow-up procedure. He appeared in his first game since September 27th, 2011 last April 3rd and for a month, owned the Florida State League, a high-A league. He struck out ten over nine innings, all as a reliever. Since then, he tossed 7.1 ING for Tennessee, the Cubs' AA squad. Vizcaino is on the 40-man roster for the Cubs and can run it up to 100 mph. He might make it back to the big leagues this summer if he stays productive and shows that he's capable of pitching on back-to-back nights, something he has yet to be asked to do.

While Vizcaino has struggled to stay healthy, Delgado has simply struggled. After failing to make the Diamondbacks out of camp in 2013, Delgado struggled in Reno, though most pitchers hate the Pacific Coast League. However, Delgado was especially bad because Delgado, for all of his poise and ability, has never been able to refine the flaws to his game. Notably, too many homers, too many walks, too few groundballs. After the trade, many articles referred to Delgado as a groundball pitcher and while he gets his fair share, his problem was that he lacked a third pitch breaking ball. He relied far too much on a 93-95 mph fastball with a plus-changeup. As a starter, he was asking for trouble.

Still, despite 24 homers in 116.1 ING last year with Arizona, he posted a workable 4.26 ERA and a pinpoint 1.8 BB/9. At least, that was the impression from looking at his numbers. He even tossed a three-hit shutout against the Padres. However, after that shutout which lowered his ERA to 2.85, Delgado got roughed up over the last two months to the tune of a 5.46 ERA and 17 homers in 62.2 ING. The book was out on him. Those struggles have continued this season. Out of options, Delgado, coming into Wednesday, had appeared in 15 games with 2 starts and posted a 6.85 ERA. His FIP (3.98) likes him more than his ERA right now, but he has walked a lot of batters (15 in 23.2 ING).

You take chances in trades and you never know which trade will work out, both for the production you receive and the performance of the player you traded. So far, and it's early, of the Big Four, the two the Braves kept have been tremendous and two they surrendered have been unproductive. Things can change and Vizcaino is slowly working his way back while Delgado won't be 25 until next February, but considering the players the Braves brought in by trading those two, Atlanta and its front office has to feel good.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No Longer a BABIP Lord

Last season, it took me some time to drop my fear that Chris Johnson was just lucky. His BABIP of .394, which often ventured north of .400, made him a constant concern. After all, rarely do players maintain high BABIP's for very long. Nevertheless, Johnson finished 2013 with a fine slash line of .321/.358/.457. He didn't walk much, but he never did in the past. He struck out a personal low 21.2% of the time and his ISO of .136 was actually down, but over all, it was a productive 2.8 fWAR season for a third baseman largely considered the throw-in of the Martin Prado and prospects deal for Justin Upton last offseason.

This season, things have not been as pleasant, or as lucky. Johnson has walked less (2.6%), which is fairly ridiculous. His wOBA of .285 would be his lowest of his career. The only reason his fWAR has stayed positive (0.4) is because of a likely unsustainable positive UZR of 1.6. His best UZR was last season's -5.2.

But is he unlucky now? His BABIP is .346 this season, 14 points lower than his career average and nearly 50 points lower than last season. But it's not that greatly different than his 2012 season with the Astros and Diamondbacks where he slashed .281/.326/.451. At a position that lacks offensive talent, that's a productive third baseman even if he's not gifted defensively.

What's wrong?  Well, he's walking less and his 0.11 BB/K rate would be horrendous and a new low. But that can't be it. He's not hitting for power, but why? Because the numbers don't reflect a notable change in how he's hitting the ball, I am inclined to believe it's more mechanical or mental. Considering his most recent bout with yet another temper tantrum, that seems reasonable. One problem he has had this season is that he's chasing more than usual. That is typically a sign of a guy chasing. Last season, 39.4% of "balls" were offered at (meaning, outside the zone). This season, he's swinging at 5% more of those pitches and 4% more than his career average. He's swinging more and with less results.

At the beginning of May, the Braves signed Johnson to a $23.5M contract over the next three seasons with an option for 2018. They need more of the guy who played well last season and less of this version of Johnson. And truly, as convinced as I was last season that the other shoe would drop, the more I look at his numbers, the more I am convinced Johnson should be better. He's not as good as he was last year, but he's not this bad. He seems more comparable to the 2011 version.

He needs to get out of his own damn head first, though.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Look Back: 2006 Draft

I have been looking at recent drafts, starting with 2012 and working my way to 2007 last week. I think this one will be the final "look back" for this series as the focus turns to 2006. The draft was notable for its many misses, especially at the top. The draft produced just one productive major leaguer for the Braves. This was despite getting four compensation picks, including supplemental first round picks and second round picks, for losing Rafael Furcal and Kyle Farnsworth. In fact, with the 100th pick in the draft, the Braves had already selected their seventh player. You expect a big haul with so many top picks, even if the top choice was the #24th overall selection.  As such, this draft has to go down as one of the worst in recent years for the Braves.

The draft is also notable for really the last draft that saw a focus on high school players. The first four picks were all out of high school and they would add three more high school picks from rounds 3 to 8. As I have done in the other editions, I will go over the first ten rounds before moving on to notable picks from the remainder of the draft.

1. Cody Johnson, OF, A. Crawford Mosley High School (Lynn Haven, FL)

Of the first 21 picks of the first round, all but two have made it to the majors, which includes a haul of superstars like Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer. However, picks 22-to-24 all have failed to make it to the majors, including the Braves first pick in Cody Johnson. An imposing figure at 6'4" and 240 lbs., the left-hand hitting outfielder had some big years in the minors for the Braves, including 17 homers and a 1.004 OPS with Danville in 2007 and a year where he hit .242/.345/.517 with a Carolina League-leading 32 homers in 2009. He played on that team with Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, but both would be gone long before Johnson moved up. He struggled in 2010, hitting .212 and striking out 151 times while playing just 106 games. It became clear to the Braves that while his power was tempting, the hole in his swing would be a unfixable problem. They sold him off to the Yankees to avoid completely cutting him. He spent parts of three years in the Yankees system, finally making it to AAA last season, but after a .556 OPS and 32 K's in 18 games, the Yankees cut the former first rounder and he spent time with both York and New Jersey, fixtures in independent baseball.

1s. Cory Rasmus, RHP, Russell County High School (Seale, AL)

Armed with a heavy fastball, expectations were high for Rasmus, the younger brother of Colby Rasmus. However, injuries would limit him to 7 games and 13 innings from the moment he signed and the beginning of the 2009 season. He would pitch just 51.2 ING that year, but the 57 K's was a hopeful sign. He finally made some headway the following season, posting a 3.18 ERA between Rome ad Myrtle Beach. Injuries again propped up, limiting him to 27.1 ING in 2011 and the Braves moved him to the pen for 2012, where he finally stayed healthy. Control issues continue to plague him with walk rates north of 5 BB/9, but after a 1.72 ERA in 37 games, to go with 14 saves, and a an ugly three game run in the bigs, Rasmus packed his bags for the west coast when the Braves dealt him for Scott Downs last July. He's played in Salt Lake this season and is still walking too many guys. He got a week in the bigs recently, but was very hittable and headed back to the minors.

1s. Steve Evarts, LHP, T.R. Robinson High School (Tampa, FL)

Drafted while comparisons were made to former Braves southpaw Steve Avery, Evarts pitched well for the Braves. When he pitched. In four seasons with the organization, Evarts threw 98 innings.  He was more known for his off-the-field adventures, including using a baseball bat to damage a vehicle after the 2006 season. In 2010, Evarts was arrested (apparently for the fourth time since 2006) on felony battery and marijuana possession.  Because of his discipline issues and arm injuries, the Braves cut bait in 2009. After missing all of 2009 and 2010, the Yankees gave Evarts a shot ahead of the 2011 season and he started seven games for their South Atlantic League squad, but that August, he was busted for PED's and the Yankees had enough. He spent 2012 in independent ball, but didn't pitch well there either. Ugly, forgetful pick.

2. Jeff Locke, LHP, A Crosby Kennett High School (Conway, NH)

After trying their luck with the southeast, the Braves went up the coast to select Locke. Unlike the two pitchers the Braves selected ahead of him, Locke would remain healthy and after 74 K's in 61 innings for Danville in 2007, he made his full season debut the following season with Rome to mediocre results. During the 2009 season, after ten struggling starts with Myrtle Beach, Locke was part of the trade that sent Nate McLouth to the Braves and Locke would become a Lynchburg Hillcat for the remainder of the year, helping the Hillcats to the Carolina League title. Of course, a few years later, the Hillcats would become a Braves team. Locke was never a big prospect, but in 2012, he looked to turn the corner, posting a 2.48 ERA and 1.19 WHIP for Indianapolis. The following season, he arrived in the bigs and was a surprising All-Star for the Pirates, though he would fall on his face in the second half with an ugly 6.12 ERA. This season, he has spent most of the season back in the minors, save for an ugly early-May start in Pittsburgh.

2. Dustin Evans, RHP, Georgia Southern University

The Braves went back to Georgia with the other second round selection, picking up Evans who the Reds drafted in the 28th round out of high school in 2003. Evans was likely thrilled to get the call with the Braves and had a nice start to his career in 2006, pitching 51.1 innings, mostly with Rome, to good enough results. Injuries and just bad pitching began to mount from there. He allowed 11 homers in 99.2 ING with the Pelicans in 2007, pitched just 45.1 ING the following season, and was released after that. Nobody came calling for the former second rounder.

2. Chase Fontaine, SS, Daytona Beach Community College

Some players have names that are very forgetful, but when you have a nice that easily could have fit into a 1960's musical, that was not very possible. Fontaine was a strong hitter for the Braves, but struggled to find a spot as his defense was ugly. The Braves quickly cut bait, trading him tot he Rays organization prior to spring training in 2008, giving up both Fontaine and Willy Aybar for left-hander Jeff Ridgway, who spent one season in the Braves organization before Atlanta let him go. Fontaine spent just one season with the Rays before heading to Kansas City for a season. However, they too sent him packing and Fontaine spent three seasons in independent ball, batting .277. He last played on September 1, 2012.

3. Chad Rodgers, LHP, Walsh Jesuit High School (Cuyahoga Falls, OH)

Another victim to injuries, Rodgers never pitched 100 innings for the Atlanta Braves and even after moving him to the bullpen, he could not stay healthy. Banished to rookie ball in 2012, he still struggled and Atlanta let Rodgers leave. He spent 2013 in the Twins organization, posting a 1.43 WHIP in high A ball. I don't see any evidence that he's currently signed anywhere. Instead, he is a strength and conditioning coach, along with a writer for a website called Show Me Strength.

4. Lee Hyde, LHP, Georgia Tech

Back to Georgia we go with Hyde, a starter through his junior year with the Yellow Jackets. Almost immediately, he was transitioned to the bullpen and climbed all the way to Richmond for a game in 2007, but wouldn't make it back to AAA until 2010. Injuries played a major role. Since leaving the Braves organization after 2010, Hyde has played in the Nationals and Yankees organization and is currently in his second season with the Reds organization, though he has got lit up this season with their AAA-squad, Louisville.

5. Kevin Gunderson, LHP, Oregon State University

With their third straight left-hander chosen, the Braves got a college reliever who was a productive player early in his career with the organization. In 2007, he posted a 3.02 ERA in 56.2 ING, but walked 33. His control was better the next year when he saved 13 with the Pelicans and Mississippi Braves. After a good season in 2009, mostly with Mississippi, he was cut and hasn't played professionally since.

6. Steven Figueroa, RHP, Edgewater High School (Orlando, FL)

Like a broken record, injuries claim another. In parts of four seasons, not including a completely missed 2009 campaign, Figueroa pitched 80.2 ING, including just 15.1 above rookie ball. The Braves said goodbye after June of 2010. The two players selected ahead of him, Andrew Bailey and Bud Norris, were productive major league talents. Figueroa - not so much.

7. Adam Coe, 3B, Russell County High (Seale, AL)

A teammate of first rounder Cory Rasmus, Coe hit well in the Gulf Coast League after he was drafted, slashing .269/.343/.474 and finishing fourth in the league in homers with seven. After that, he struggled to produce and to stay healthy showing that position players selected by the Braves in 2006 also can't stay in the lineup. He last played professionally with Rome in 2009.

8. Casey Black, RHP, San Jacinto College (Houston, TX)

The Braves quickly turned their junior college find into a reliever and he made it to Rome in 2008, but after a 1.63 WHIP, the Braves sent him packing. The Blue Jays called and he posted a 2.84 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 2009 and was solid the next year, too. Injuries got him, too, and he would only pitch 15 innings. This season, he has caught on with Amarillo in the American Association.

9. Tim Gustafson, RHP, Georgia Tech

The Braves took their second Yellow Jacket 150 picks after taking Lee Hyde in the 4th round. Gustafson was a reliever with average grades who suffered some injuries in his junior season and was transitioned into starter by the Braves ahead of the 2007 season. The only thing you could say about Gustafson's career is that it has continued despite a lack of solid numbers. After the Braves cut him in May of 2011, he caught on with the Reds and stuck with them through 2013. Currently a reliever for Bridgeport in the Atlantic League with former Brave farmhands Winston Abreu, Jaye Chapman, and Ty'Relle Harris.

10. Kris Medlen, RHP, Santa Ana College

Hard to believe that the $85,000 investment into a college closer would produce the only significant pick of the 2006 draft for Atlanta. Meds would dominate Danville after being drafted and saved 11 during 2008 as he climbed from Rome to Mississippi. During the 2008 season, he was transitioned to starter and K'd 120 in in 120.1 ING. It wouldn't take long for Meds to reach the majors and after eight games in 2009, he arrived in the bigs for a 37 game run where he struck out over a batter an inning and started four games. The following season ended prematurely, but he showed solid signs with a 1.20 WHIP in 107.2 ING. After making it back from Tommy John for two games out of the pen in 2011, Medlen had a remarkable 2012 season that saw him move to the starting rotation for the final two months and dominate the opposition. He entered 2012 with high expectations and despite an average 15-12 record, he posted a good 3.11 ERA and threw 197 innings. However, as we know, he went down in spring training and got his second Tommy John surgery. A free agent after 2015, the Braves could hypothetically non-tender Medlen ahead rather than go to arbitration for the often injured righty. Regardless, as a tenth rounder, he was a tremendous find.

Some other interesting picks...

-The Braves gave up on 11th rounder Mike Mehlich after 2009, but he has been a solid worker in independent ball, appearing in nearly 150 games since 2010 for five different squads.

-Deunte Heath, selected in the 19th round, has had a fairly productive minor league career, though he would never be confused with a big prospect. Twice, he has made it to the bigs and twice he has been lit up. He's still in the White Sox system after joining them after the Braves cut him before 2010.

-Selected in the 22nd round, Cole Rohrbough garnered some interest among prospect experts after posting a 1.17 ERA and striking out 96 in 61.1 ING during 2007. He followed that up with 104 K's in 90 innings for Rome and Myrtle Beach. However, after 117 mediocre innings in 2009, he would never throw more than 22.2 ING and the Braves cut bait after 2012. For us Braves fans that paid attention, Rohrbough was always the sleeper capable of breaking out. He just never could stay healthy enough to do so.

For more reviews on the draft, click any of the following links. 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A little bit on a Memorial Day loss

Today's loss stung a little. Up 6-1 on the reeling Boston Red Sox, losers of ten straight, the Braves had the game well in hand as they entered the fifth. However, Ervin Santana nibbled and got into a bases loaded situation that began with a two-out walk to Daniel Nava. Santana got ahead of Dustin Pedroia, but served up a meatball that Pedroia ripped to left for a pair of runs. David Ortiz followed with a jack. After a lengthy rain delay, the BoSox added two more and won 8-6.

It was a miserable way to fall to pieces, but things got worse after the game. This comes from Grant McAuley, the Braves reporter for 929 The Game.
...

Why in the world would a pitcher's win matter? The team win is all that matters. The team win is, at the end of the day, what decides which teams go to the playoffs and which stay home. Ervin Santana's win-loss record is a non-factor.

And being a veteran is a worthless, not to mention inconsistent, distinction. You went with Alex Wood and Ian Thomas as the next two out of the pen. So, a veteran if pitching with a three-run lead, youngster if pitching in a tie game? What kind of backwards thinking is that?

I'm not the type to second-guess every Fredi Gonzalez decision. In fact, I would argue that managers rarely matter, especially in the regular decision, and they are only acting in consultation with their coaches and a previously laid out coaching philosophy. And generally speaking, I believe most fans convince themselves that the manager is the problem over the playing talent, available options, and just sheer luck.

And it's not really the result of leaving Santana in that pisses me off. At the time, sure, but that's gone soon after. It would be a different situation had Fredi came out and said, "I thought Santana's velocity was good, but he missed his location and we suffered as a result." Or something more cliche-filled and less eloquent. You can be critical of that, but ultimately, going to the pen doesn't mean a different or even better result would have occurred. However, what Fredi is essentially saying is "I refuse to make a decision." He refuses to make a managerial decision, depending on his player to sink-or-swim, and worrying too much about the wrong "win" stat. That's not managing. That's letting the players manage your decision-making. Even Santana came out later and said it was Fredi's call so why not make a call? You believe in Santana? Make the call. You believe in the bullpen? Make the call. Don't let your decision come down to "shit, he hasn't finished the fifth. We got the lead so I gotta stick with him."

But this is Fredi Gonzalez, a graduate of the Bobby Cox School of Management. Cox is headed to the Hall of Fame this summer, but he has one ring for a reason. Oh, we can talk about how certain players didn't play up big in the postseason and the bullpens were too often ignored, but Cox did have a dream rotation throughout the 90's and some very effective players in the lineup. Why one ring? Because Cox is a player's manager. That makes him a superb guy in the clubhouse and his players will fight for him and speak up for him, but in moments where on-the-fly strategy matters, he became a mental midget.

Fredi is the same way. Rather than make the call, let the players decide it for you. Watch Fredi's bullpen management in the middle innings. "My starter's nearing 90-100 pitches, but I don't want to make a decision. I got it, I'll warm up a pair of guys and wait for my starter to put runners on before getting off my ass." It's gutless managing and it's the kind of stuff that leads to losses.

The Braves are a talented team and they should be there at the end of the season. They need their manager to make decisions to win the game, not give his players a chance to pad their numbers. They need a manager with brass balls, not cowardly avoiding hurting his player's ego.

Clubhouse management is nice. Makes those long road trips a lot easier. Guess what else does? Good results.

Roger McDowell Deserves More Credit

Last offseason, the Phillies tried to raid the Braves coaching staff, talking to Roger McDowell. A former member of the Phillies during parts of three seasons, McDowell was offered an undisclosed amount of money from Philly that was more than the Braves were paying him. Atlanta was face with the possibility of needing a new pitching coach, but acted positively to keep McDowell, increasing his salary and inking him to a new two-year contract.

After famously replacing the departing Leo Mazzone ahead of the 2006 season, McDowell's hiring was criticized. Rockin' Leo was held to just regard by Braves fans that anyone replacing him would have a tough time. Whenever a legend is replaced, whether it's Bear Bryant, John Wooden, or even Bobby Cox, one of the common narratives that follows is how no one wants to replace a legend. Be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend. It's a lot easier. Whether Leo was the truly legend Braves fans make him...he did have three Hall of Fame pitchers...he was still regarded as such.

McDowell's first season was rocky. The Streak came to an end as the Braves won 79 and gave up 805 runs. Gone was a pair of Hall of Famers. In their place was a good, but declining John Smoltz. Tim Hudson was awful. The rest of the staff was built on guys who would be out of the bigs within a couple of years. Chris Reitsma was miscast as a closer. Ken Ray appeared in 69 games. Pitching coaches can't do much with an old team that lacks talent. Still, the pitching was much improved the following season, finishing third in ERA despite relying on Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle, Kyle Davies, Jo-Jo Reyes, Lance Cormier, Mark Redman, Jeff Bennett, and Anthony Lerew to start 96 games.

The Braves gave McDowell a young starter in Jair Jurrjens in 2008 and under McDowell's stewardship, Jurrjens progressed into an All-Star. McDowell got the most out of Jorge Campillo and Bennett, though talent was still lacking so the Braves finally addressed the elephant in the room in 2009, getting Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe. Tommy Hanson came up and was very good. McDowell got his hands on Kris Medlen and Eric O'Flaherty and both flourished. In the coming years, he would get solid innings from Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters, David Carpenter, Anthony Varvaro, and Craig Kimbrel. The latter might be his most amazing accomplishment. Kimbrel walked 5.7 BB/9 in the minors, but during his Rookie of the Year season, he lowered that to 3.7 BB/9.

There are many more names. Since McDowell took over as the pitching coach, the Braves have posted a 3.76 ERA, good for second in baseball behind the Dodgers' 3.71 in the same time frame. They are sixth in K/9, second in GB%, and second in WHIP. Under McDowell, the bullpen ERA of 3.41 is also second in baseball.

The Second Spitter deserved his pay raise. He deserves another based on what he has done this season with a staff that lost Medlen and Beachy and opened the year with Minor on the shelf. Venters is still trying to work his way back. He took a guy nobody thought deserved a long-term deal in Ervin Santana and has him clicking. Oh, and the spare part known as Aaron Harang? Experiencing a resurgence that doesn't even look like smoke and mirrors (2.29 FIP). They took a sub-3.00 ERA into today's action against the Red Sox, a number that is not likely to be maintained, but it's also a representation of the talent and coaching the Braves are fortunate enough to have. McDowell has his detractors and he did embarrass himself, and the team, in San Francisco a few years back.

Nevertheless, as a pitching coach, he has few peers. Some might point to the injuries, though that is happening league-wide. Atlanta is quite lucky to have McDowell for the foreseeable future.